KNAU and Arizona News
9:14 am
Thu November 22, 2012

"Goodbye, Thunderbolt"

Commentator Sandy Tolan shares a Thanksgiving remembrance of Flagstaff bluegrass musician Kevin Walsh. 

Bluegrass musician Kevin Walsh playing guitar on the San Francisco Peaks, 1979.
Credit Matt and Gretchen Markiewicz

On Thanksgiving Day, 1979, a young journalist named Sandy Tolan was on a road trip from New York to California when he made an unexpected stop in Flagstaff. He wanted to visit his friend, Kevin Walsh, a popular bluegrass musician. The two had been good friends when Tolan lived in Flagstaff. But, lately he'd been hearing rumblings that Kevin might be experiencing the onset of mental illness, something he would end up struggling with for most of his 57 years. Kevin Walsh died on Halloween. And in this remembrance, commentator Sandy Tolan recalls their Thanksgiving road trip many years ago.

I woke up shivering, my head rattling against the window of Kevin's old Ford Maverick. It was one thirty in the morning, thirty-three Thanksgivings ago, and we were on the road near the Hoover Dam, bound for a reunion with friends in Chico, California.

I pulled my lumpy down coat tight against me in the frigid car. I stole a look at my friend. One bony hand gripped the wheel; the other pulled his goatee to a sharp point. He was glaring out at the road, his right eye narrowed ferociously.

Suddenly I was wide awake. "You okay, Thunderbolt?" I asked him, calling him by his stage name.

"Fine, Ace," he replied sharply. That was my nickname back then. "Now why don't you go to to sleep. His grip tightened. The radio crackled from a distant storm.

A few days earlier I'd gotten a call from John Zarske, a mutual friend and a Flagstaff folk and bluegrass player, like Kevin.

"Something's wrong," Zarske said. Kevin had been acting strangely: rearranging furniture in other people's homes, going in their closets and putting on all their clothes. Kevin was convinced the CIA was releasing brain-deadening gas into the ventilation systems of every school in America. The reason I'd recently moved, Kevin told Zarske, was because I'd found out about the global conspiracy and escaped to New York.

Maybe Kevin was just stressed, I told Zarske. Maybe he just needed someone who really understood him. Someone like me, I thought. So I came out to Flag to try to talk sense into my old friend. My optimism soon met the hard chill in Kevin's eyes.

"So they got to you too, eh Ace?" he asked when I insisted there was no conspiracy. Within seconds his warmth had turned to contempt.

"Kevin, you need help," I told him. He was having none of it.

I felt a panic, as if solid ground had vanished. Kevin had insisted that he come with me. He said, "If you don't invite me, I'll show up on my own and it won't be pretty."

I tried to go deeper, reminding him of our times together: drinking Jim Beam in front of the fire in my old A-Frame in Mountainaire; splitting aspen and juniper logs in Hart Prairie in late fall. And how we all say along with Kevin, with a devilish grin that pierced his coke-bottle glasses, hunched over his Martin, madly strumming Django Reinhardt.

I believed that memories, friendship and love could be a salve for whatever haunted my friend. But nothing reached Kevin. With each story, he shook his head, disgusted with me.

At dawn on Thanksgiving morning Kevin was still at the wheel, his hair brushed back, face placid and clear.

"How'd you sleep, Ace?" he said, as if nothing had happened.

We sang our way into central California, channeling the David Bromberg, Ian Tyson and Seldom Scene that "Thunderbolt" Kevin Walsh sang on stage. He wasn't a fast picker. Sometimes his voice was off key. But no one could hold a room better than the Thunderbolt.

We came upon a farm stand on a lonely two land road. Chico lay an hour north. The counter was covered in baskets of gourds, kiwi fruit and small pumpkins. A sign said, "Prices are marked. Please put the money in the change box. We've gone to church. Happy Thanksgiving."

Kevin's eyes shone bright and wet. "There are still good people," he whispered, astonished at such an act of trust.

Once we got to Chico, things unraveled. The weekend ended in disaster: Kevin swinging from a tree, howling like a monkey, wearing our host's clothing. Kevin's father and brother drove from Phoenix to get him, eventually coaxing him out of the branches and into treatment where he was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The disease, I would learn, often emerged in young men when they hit their 2o's.

That's when my relationship with Kevin fundamentally changed. I was back in New York, confused, uncertain how to respond. And busy, too, I reasoned; a crusading journalist in the making. I withdrew from inquiry about his health. I lost touch. The truth was, I didn't know how to be friends with someone who was so unwell. And I didn't have the strength to risk one more contemptuous gaze from someone so dear who looked right through me as if I didn't exist.

Two decades later, I heard from Kevin. He said he was working in mental health administration in Humboldt County, California. I had an assignment coming up in timber country there. We met for dinner. Kevin talked about his new life. And we talked about the past, about hikes on The Peaks, musicians we knew from Flagstaff. He was slow and controlled without the verve and fire I remembered. I figured it was his meds. Then he smiled and passed a CD case to me across the dinner table. He'd recorded two new songs, "Hope 1996" and "Lockdown". He called it his "dedication to the medication."

That was the last time I saw Kevin.

On election night, I got a call from an old friend who said he'd read Kevin's obituary in the Phoenix newspaper. I found out he'd drifted back to Arizona and spent years going on and off his meds, living on and off the streets. But lately he'd found a good job at the Grand Canyon where he'd sometimes still play music. He died at 57 on Halloween night.

On this Thanksgiving, I remember Kevin Walsh as I knew him when we were younger: "Thunderbolt", playing on stage in Flagstaff where he belonged.

Thank you, Thunderbolt. Happy Thanksgiving. I'm grateful for your friendship.

Sandy Tolan is an associate professor at the Annenberg School Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.